Relationships without Reward: The Role of Childhood Abuse History in Maternal Addiction, Mental Health, and Parenting
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Being a mother is often described as a difficult but rewarding experience. Maternal parenting reward (PR) may serve an important function, helping to facilitate responsive maternal care and healthy infant development. However, it should not be taken for granted that the rewards of parenting will emerge naturally for women, particularly women who were abused by their own caregivers in childhood, within family systems that enabled or perpetuated the abuse. Despite an abundance of research on the neurobiological correlates of PR, surprisingly little is known about mothers’ self-reported experience of PR, both in general and in relation to early adversity. The aims of this survey-based dissertation were to develop and psychometrically evaluate a PR self-report measure, and to determine the extent to which childhood abuse predicts short-term (family betrayal) and long-term (maternal depression, posttraumatic stress, and problematic substance use) sequelae of abuse that are associated with diminished PR. In Study 1, with 203 mothers of young children, the final 14-item questionnaire assessed PR in a way that was not confounded with social desirability or maternal demographic characteristics, and was distinct from the related constructs of parenting pleasure and satisfaction. On average, mothers reported being highly rewarded by parenting, though there were individual differences in PR within and across mothers. In Study 2, with 270 mothers of young children, maternal history of childhood psychological and sexual abuse by caregivers each predicted diminished PR indirectly. Childhood psychological abuse was strongly associated with family betrayal, or actions and inactions by the family of origin that enabled or perpetuated abuse, which in turn predicted recent maternal depression and posttraumatic stress, each of which predicted diminished PR. The association between childhood sexual abuse and diminished PR was mediated by increased maternal posttraumatic stress symptoms only, not by family betrayal or alcohol use problems related to posttraumatic stress, as hypothesized. Although alcohol use problems predicted diminished PR at the bivariate level, they did not predict PR in the full model. Maternal childhood abuse by caregivers is indirectly associated with disruptions to the social rewards of attachment, with potential intergenerational consequences for the mother-infant relationship and infant development.